Last Updated on June 27, 2022
The Supreme Court granted a huge win to a Washington High School football coach who was fired for reciting prayers on the field after games. The court reviewed the issue of whether a coach praying in public was engaging in unprotected “government speech,” Fox News reported. Beyond that, the Supreme Court ruled on whether the coach’s actions still pose an issue under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Joe Kennedy — who coached football for the Bremerton School District in Washington — was canned for reciting a silent prayer at the 50-yard-line after games. Players were not mandated to attend the prayer, but the school district opted to fire Kennedy anyway after asking him to stop.
In a 6-3 decision Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that Kennedy’s prayer did not constitutive “government speech.”
“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the Court’s opinion.
“Religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
The football coach began silently saying the prayer after games by himself, though other players soon started to join. When the school asked Kennedy to stop, he refused.
“The prayer after the football game — that was just myself, I would just take a knee at the 50-yard line after football game,” Kennedy told Fox News in April. “After a few months, the kids would say: Coach, what are you doing out there? And I just said I was thanking God for what you did. They asked if they could join. And I said: it’s America, a free country, you do what you want to do. And that’s how that kind of started.”
The coach held his silent, 30-60 second prayer after games for seven years. Some parents eventually complained, however, including the mother of a student whose son claimed his atheism prevented him from getting playing time.
Another parent, Paul Peterson, whose son played on the team in 2010, said the sight of the coach on the field surrounded by kneeling teammates became a “spectacle,” that put pressure on other students to follow.
The school district then asked Kennedy to pray at different locations, but he said he would continue the practice. After two more post-game prayer sessions, the coach was placed on leave.
Bremerton School District argued that by allowing the coach to pray at the 50-yard-line, it would violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which protects separation of church and state.
“That reasoning was misguided,” the majority opinion said. “Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor.”
A dissenting opinion penned by Justice Sotomayor argued that the facts of the case were inaccurate.
“The record reveals that Kennedy had a longstanding practice of conducting demonstrative prayers on the 50-yard line of the football field,” Sotomayor wrote. “Kennedy consistently invited others to join his prayers and for years led student athletes in prayer at the same time and location. The Court ignores this history.”
Sotomayor also pointed to accusations that students who didn’t partake were being denied playing time.
During oral arguments, Kennedy’s attorney addressed allegations that the coach would withhold playing time for students who didn’t partake. The district did not mention this in its reasoning for the firing, Fox News reported.